In the average year, California receives about 190 million acre-feet of precipitation. However, we rarely experience an average year. This year, we are blessed with an abundant supply of snow storage in the Sierra. But the inability to bank this bounty, beyond our existing reservoirs, is a serious missed opportunity. This wonderful wet winter will ironically elevate political complacency around one of the state’s most vital necessities – a reliable and sustainable water supply.
Precipitation in California is highly variable, which can lead to extreme drought and forced conservation, or extreme precipitation and flooding. Unfortunately, there is not adequate water storage capacity to buffer both extremes. Boosting capacity and improving conveyance have so many benefits, including more reliable drinking and irrigation supplies; improved flood protection; carbon-free hydropower generation; timelier, colder water flows for fish, especially threatened and endangered species; environmental enhancement; and recreational opportunities that serve our growing population and boost local economies. In times when a crisis is a shame to waste, there are those who obsess with permanent conservation and environmental regulations while more fresh water flows through the Golden Gate into the Pacific Ocean.
Looking through the Golden Gate reminds us of another underutilized opportunity : ocean desalination. While one can debate desalination’s energy costs or environmental impacts, desalinated ocean and brackish water can expand water supply , enhance agriculture , reduce demand and environmental impacts on the Sacramento-San Joaquin river systems, relieve dependence on the Colorado River , and help drought-proof California’s coastal cities.
We must also significantly increase the pace and scale of thinning forests. Strategic thinning not only improves the health of our largest winter reservoirs — the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges — it also reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfires and opens the forest canopy to get more snow on the ground. The snow eventually melts and percolates into the soil to enhance ground water . Also, increasing storage capacity doesn’t have to mean damming rivers. We can raise existing dams, create off-stream storage , encourage landowners to develop stock ponds, and dredge sediment from reservoirs to recover lost storage. We can also do a lot more to recharge declining groundwater basins in our Central Valley.
None of this comes easy. Everything described requires difficult decisions, the tenacity to get them done, compromise and money. Good decisions require a comprehensive and systematic statewide approach rather than continued strategies entrenched in special interests and politics. We must adopt a statewide, resilient water portfolio capable of storing in years of plenty, and yielding in years of drought, if California is to have a reliable and sustainable water supply for future generations.
The components and objectives of such a portfolio should include :
- Increased capacity in watersheds
- Increased surface storage
- Increased groundwater replenishment
- Increased desalination
- Education and technology to advance efficiency practices, and to optimize wastewater recycling and storm water capture
Providing a reliable water supply to serve California’s diverse population and environment requires leaders who are bold enough to overcome petty politics and adversity, without sacrificing one region’s interest for another.
It is time to adopt and advance a visionary water strategy to pave the way to a prosperous future for California. Unless we have the courage to take positive action , we will continue to reallocate and ration the half-empty glass of water, dangerously placing California’s golden economic engine at risk. Instead there should be a focus on increased resiliency, water security, food supply and economic prosperity.
California can do better and will be better off for doing so. We need to stop missing opportunities.
The authors represent water districts and associations in Northern and Southern California. They wrote this for The Modesto Bee.